I spent the last week of my campaign for Baltimore City Council knocking doors in neighborhoods on the periphery of Baltimore’s First District. Each family I met told a different story: jobs lost at GM or homes snatched through foreclosure. A day before the election, I approached a house whose railing contained two big, bright signs. The first one read, “Zeke Cohen for City Council.” The other, “Trump: Make America Great Again!”
I stood still for a moment, bewildered, before knocking. I am a progressive Democrat who ran for City Council on a message of inclusivity.
An elderly white gentleman opened the door. After a quick introduction, I asked why he supported both me and Mr. Trump. “Young man, you’ve been to my house three times. You’ve sat on my stoop and listened to me tell my stories. You make me feel hopeful. But out there in Washington, they forgot about working people. They don’t care about us. I want someone who will take a bat to the whole rotten system.”
I woke up Nov. 9 to the news that I would soon govern in Donald Trump’s America. I will join seven new colleagues on the Baltimore City Council, and we will have a new mayor trying to heal our city’s wounds. Our brief moment of joy in toppling the local political establishment was shattered as citizens took to the streets to protest our new president.
It is hard to reconcile the terror that President-elect Donald Trump evokes for many citizens with the hope he inspires in others. This is the great challenge facing our city and country. Despite our physical proximity, there is a vast chasm separating our lived experiences. To the man I met a few days before the election, a vote for Trump was a repudiation of the codependence of political and business elites. Yet to many of his neighbors, that same vote was a callous nod to nativism, patriarchy and white supremacy.
Our task then is to reach out and embrace each other, without malice or condescension. To connect the struggle of the longshoreman left penniless by the recession, with the Dreamer whose parents risked everything to cross into the United States. Our empathy must extend beyond our kin. Our compassion cannot encompass only those who think the way we do. To heal, we must confront systemic inequality while learning to listen to people whose views are not our own.
As a new member of Baltimore’s City Council, I have heard the fear, frustration and anxiety. I feel a special obligation to protect the rights of our most vulnerable constituents. Regardless of who is in office in Washington, Baltimore will not waver in its commitment to justice. Regardless of party or ideology, we will stand with all of our residents, including those who feel endangered by the national election results.
To the young man who risked life and limb to leave home for a brighter future in Baltimore, we stand with you.
To the mother of the soldier who wakes to salute the American flag, then kneels and prays east toward Mecca, we stand with you.
To the transgender or gender non-conforming citizen who is struggling with authenticity amid harassment and disrespect, we stand with you.
To those who speak, pray or love differently, we stand with you. We affirm your right to live without fear. To love without recrimination. And to build a future that is bright and beautiful. We have your back.
We have work to do. Not to make our country great again, but to recognize the greatness that already exists in each other. And to see our strengths and our struggles as interconnected. As we move forward, we would do well to stop and listen to each other. We might find that we are not so different after all.